The Lie that Saved the World (Documentary Review: “Garbo the Spy”)


A peculiar documentary about perhaps the most peculiar double agent the world has ever seen, who duped the Nazis in a concocted deception that saved the entire D-Day operation.

SnapShot Plot

To quote Shakespeare’s The Tempest, “Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows.” The same happens during wartime, when all sorts of wily characters come out of the woodwork – for a variety of reasons – to insert themselves onto the chessboard of foreign intrigue. Many of them fade into obscurity, while others make an indelible mark on the course of human history. And some, like the slippery subject of the intriguing yet eccentric documentary, Garbo the Spy remain themselves a mystery and a missing footnote in the history books. Almost.

This week marks the 75th anniversary of the D-Day invasion on the beaches of Normandy, an enormous, multi-lateral and highly risky operation that marked the pivotal turning point in World War II. And as much bloodshed and human cost as that day came to signify in the course of history, it could have been so much worse – it could have failed utterly, in fact – if not for an ingenious subterfuge . . . a bold-faced lie that was swallowed hook, line and sinker by the Nazi brass.

At the center of the subterfuge was an eccentric Spaniard named Juan Pujol Garcia, who presented himself repeatedly to the Allies with the offer to spy against the Germans. Problem was, he was already spying for the Germans. . . if you could call what he did spying. With no formal military or intelligence training, he somehow convinced the Nazis that he was the handler for a huge, international ring of spies. It was all fiction; he made them all up. He was so good at it that he had them believing he was stationed out of London without ever stepping foot in England. And on one occasion, when he told the Nazis that one of his ‘assets’ had been killed, they even paid the ‘wife’ a pension.

But Allied intelligence kept turning him away, until finally the British decided to give Garcia a second look. At first they didn’t trust him; after all, he was allegedly already ‘on the books’ for Germany. Eventually he proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that his true loyalties lay with England, and it was in preparation for the Normandy Invasion that Garcia – now dubbed Garbo for his genius in acting the role of Nazi informer – achieved his crowning glory of deception. He was squarely at the center of the counter-intelligence scheme to make the Nazis believe that the D-Day landing would occur in Pas-de-Calais and not in Normandy. If not for that gamble, the entire course of human history would no doubt have turned out (devastatingly) differently than it did, for all mankind.



In this 2010 film that plays half like a documentary and half like a cinematic tour of the most famous film noir WWII spy films of all times, director Edmon Roch spins a narrative web as intricate as one of Garbo’s own long-game deceptions. The film was actually based on the book, Operation Garbo: The Personal Story of the Most Successful Spy of World War II, by Nathan West (who is one of the talking heads featured in the film).

Once you settle yourself in to this strange hybrid of a documentary, it’s actually quite engrossing. And although the clips from feature films may seem dissonant from a more ‘respectably’ journalistic tone (with one of the strangest musical soundtracks ever), you soon discover how relevant these films are to the life of Garcia. For example, one of the titles heavily sourced is the fine Alec Guinness movie, Our Man in Havana (1959), based on a Graham Greene novel inspired by Garcia. And after all, with so little archival evidence of his real life available (only two early photos are in existence), not to mention an entire career built upon imagination and deception, what better cinematic markers than the smoke and mirrors of Hollywood to tell a story as weird and wonderful as Garbo’s? I suppose it’s Fake News at its Best.

Garbo the Spy is presently streaming on Amazon Prime.

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